Readers will forgive some of the abstractions and pretenses of this post; sometime the only possibility I have of making even a limited sense of the world, especially one in tumult, is to stand as far back as possible, finding a vantage point where the world can be seen painted in broad, thick strokes. Though, from a proper distance and a sufficient squinting of the eye, those broad, thick strokes can seem, and are, as supple as the most lithe calligraphy. The simplicity elegant rather than rude, even if the story it tells is incomplete.
Half the way into this momentous 2011 and already the year is surely to be placed alongside other dates down the centuries that have come to signify rebellion, transformation and, above all, the open possibility (even if it is only the promise of possibilities) to change, utterly, the conditions in which we find ourselves. I’ll leave to others to detail how we might have gotten here; what currents bubbled along, what old moles were burrowing, what new forces emerged, what spent forces faded and what the economic crises and political impasse of liberal, capitalist ‘democracy’ have placed on the formation and elaboration of these events. In the end, all are rooted not in the new or the novel, but in the decrepit and the rotten. The past is made modern as the modern is made past. If we seek to escape from this intolerable present it is only by (re)appropriating our past in that process that we have a chance.
As we are in the midst of great events, observation is often cursory, the outlook clouded by a myriad of variables and accidents. The mighty motive forces of collective and individual interest, of class and social reproduction, the conflict they engender and the environment in which they operate are the canvas on which contingency paints. In the world of revolution the outcome of certain moments are as determined by trade union resolutions and party organization, by the subjectivity of the masses and the objectivity of the situation, as they are by an unintentional stubbing of a toe or a missed bus or a mistranslated metaphor.
The forces of history can be contingent in their realization on the most mundane, the most unforeseeable of events; yet history moves with its laws and within certain parameters. In short, history [in its future tense] is not only unwritten, it is largely unwriteable, even if trends and certain of their consequences are clearly discernible and probability circumscribed by the material; subjective and objective. History is made by us, by our will and by our actions; as iron as this or that law of history may be a powerful collective and conscious agency can forge that iron in a furnace of our own making. We might, with the hammer of solidarity and the anvil of reaction, make a weapon to wield sharp enough to cut the throat of humanity’s common enemy. It would be an act of sublime mercy, it is the hope of the ages.
Waves do not cease. We are condemned to contend with wave after wave after wave, each one altering the shore, the ground we wish to, at least for a moment, plant our feet upon and build something solid. Here, on an alien(ated) and brutal shore, we might gather with comrades and look out to an immutable ocean made utterly mutable by the ever-changing swells and surges and declare ‘this is now, we are here, we are alive’ and again set out to the horizon, where a whole continent can be seen, and, with whatever confidence, knowledge and skills the experiences of the past have given us, embark to make a home there.
If we are lucky as well as skilled enough we might, surfer like, ride the waves of history, whose ebb and flow is as sure as its form is unpredictable, with our feet still on the board, controlling our response to the roil we ride that we might not drown, that we might reach the shore, that land where we might make ‘conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, [our] human nature…’ That we might carry others with us, though too many are destined to drown along the way.
This year, 2011, is a year of rebellion. A year where the masses of people, those whom ‘democratic’ institutions are supposed to be accountable to, have risen in a dozen countries and more to demand a new accountability in its most timid voice. But there are other voices rising far less timid, far less circumspect in their vision. These voices wish to extend democracy well beyond the limits and bourgeois ‘right’ and the entrepreneurial definition of the ‘franchise’. What we are seeing around the world, ignited in the Maghreb, but whose kindling has been gathering everywhere has a true universality; the underbrush which fuels the inferno has innumerable local and specific origins, but conflagrations merge; firestorms jump across valleys and meet on the ridges of history.
If this year marks a turning point, and I think it does, it is now up to us, to those who seek not be firefighters but erectors of funeral pyres around which a ‘carnival of the oppressed’ will dance and sings hymns in celebration, throwing into the flames those ‘tradition[s] of all the dead generations [which] weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’ to act and act with all of the fearlessness, energy, radicalness apropos the moment, this very moment. In the process creating new traditions; in part continuous elaboration of the old and in part the creations of the utterly contemporary and the entirely present.
I think we are too experienced in the chorus of reversal to now sing such optimistic hymns, but we are fully justified in the humming of them, one hundred Tahrirs have have made it so. A faith in the future? A decisive break from the fetters of the ‘end of history’? Already the reaction and counter-revolution is consuming thousands of lives, attempting to cut off the hands grasping at their future in towns and villages across the landscape of revolt. Movements will be diverted and subsumed, the hope now made manifest, made real, may well be met by an assassin who, holding a cudgel over the broken skulls of rebellion proclaims for all of history to hear; ‘here I am, here is the future in which you placed your hopes.’ To which we have every right, no, duty to those who come after, to proclaim with the Old Man (then a very young man) in the years that opened the last blood-soaked century:
– Death to Utopia! Death to faith! Death to love! Death to hope! thunders the twentieth century in salvos of fire and in the rumbling of guns.
– Surrender, you pathetic dreamer. Here I am, your long awaited twentieth century, your ‘future.’
– No, replies the unhumbled optimist: You, you are only the present.
Dum spiro spero